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28 November 2013

The sad decline of BBC Radio 3 into Classic FM without adverts

The nights are long, the sun sets at 4pm and Radio 3 is in a death spiral — why even stay in London?

By Nicholas Lezard

I do hope you all read Antonia Quirke’s piece about Radio 3 in last week’s New Statesman. It’s important: taking the local instance of the gradual whittling down of the excellent programme Discovering Music from one and a half hours to 20 minutes, she extrapolates to find a deeper malaise – the whittling down of Radio 3 itself.

This is something I take almost personally, for when I moved into the Hovel, one of the things that kept me alive was having Radio 3 on almost all day and sometimes through the night. When was the last time I listened to the station for any length of time, though?

It’s not as if I’m losing interest in culture. And the Beloved works in the business of what we shall loosely call classical music and one of the many reasons she is wonderful is that she was the first woman I had gone out with who could listen to Berg or Bartók with me without asking me to switch that bloody racket off.

To think it took me half a century to get to that stage. I’d have given up if someone had told me it would take that long. When I bought her the score for Britten’s Peter Grimes last Christmas, she freaked out a bit because she’d been wanting it for years and had never been given it. She assumed I had been speaking to her family. No: just an inspired hunch and good luck.

So we’re ready for Radio 3 here, all right. And yet this station that used to be a lifeline has become an irritant. I switch on the little Sony, tune the dial, hear a few bars of insipid rubbish, or the kind of jazz you’d hear in a bar where the only selling point is the view out of the window, and switch off. What the bloody hell is going on over there?

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When I was a radio critic, the controller, Roger Wright, would take me to lunch and tell me what was going to be happening that season. I’d eat all the oysters I could cram into my gob and then repay him by complaining about the amount of jazz that his station played – but compared to the way it is today, back then the station was a treat. Now it’s Classic FM without the adverts and still, thankfully, without the unctuous announcers but that’s not good enough.

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I wonder whether it’s being run into the ground deliberately or by accident. Perhaps Wright has let his attention wander by looking after the Proms each year; as a cricketer, he should know the dangers of taking your eye off the ball.

Then again, he’s not stupid and if the station sounds like shit now (and you can hear the strain sometimes in the presenters’ voices if you listen hard enough), it’s probably because he wants it to sound that way.

As he wasn’t, the last time I checked, an actively sadistic man, or interested in making the nation slightly less cultivated than it was before he took over, then I can only assume that it’s pressure from above, although it’s an odd kind of pressure that starves the station of funds and gives every indication that it doesn’t care whether it lives or dies.

That kind of attitude is known elsewhere as “constructive dismissal”. Those in charge seem happy with the way that listening figures are going down and if it hasn’t occurred to them by now that the reason they’re going down is because the channel’s pumping out wallpaper paste, then it probably won’t ever occur to them.

I know I can listen to all the Webern and Shostakovich that I want all day long on YouTube but the nice thing about hearing something on the radio is that you know there are people out there who are prepared to share their tastes with you and let you know that you are not alone. It is the general principle behind the whole medium.

Radio 3’s slide into mediocrity or worse is like watching an old friend becoming a rather conventional bore: you see them losing their sense of humour and curiosity and think, after a while, there’s no point in seeing them again.

The nights are getting longer; the sun sets at about four o’clock in the afternoon; all the draughts in the Hovel spring into action; I am aware almost every minute of the day that the Beloved is moving to another country in January (I am hoping it is invaded by Daleks before then but I have to admit that this is something of a long shot); I think, apart from my children, what’s keeping me here?

I’ve got an American passport and Razors says he has a spare room for me, should I ever need it. True, the radio is rubbish even in New York but it’s getting that way here, so why not?